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Background: In some disciplines, a primary means of disseminating scientific results is publishing papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Often, the article is only available after peer-review and acceptance. If other researchers are unhappy with this already published paper, if they find errors, mistakes, problems with an analysis or interpretation, etc., the official way to address this is to write a so-called "letter to the editor" or "expression of concern." This is a short explanation of concerns that writers of that letter have about the paper. This letter will then be published, in the same journal, alongside the author's response. These letters are also peer-reviewed to filter out cranks, unjustified criticisms, or simple misunderstandings.

I think I already know how to review a paper, but how to review a letter to the editor that is raising concerns about a paper?

  • Should I just say if I agree or disagree with the points made?
  • Am I supposed to review the whole paper again, or just the letter?
  • Can you suggest adding other issues I have with the paper to the letter, or am I supposed to just stick to the point?
  • Any other tips or things to consider?

Ask the editor? I do not want to ask the editor what they want, for the same reason why I don't want to ask an editor what they want when every time I review a paper. These letters are common in many fields, and there is nothing special about this peer-review. Therefore, I expect there are general guidelines about how to approach this.

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    Is the letter about a paper of yours or a third party?
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 14:24
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    You should ask the editor (or whoever asked you to 'review' this) what they are looking for.
    – avid
    Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 14:27
  • @Buffy it's not my paper Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 14:29
  • @avid i am sure there are some general recommendations that could be applied here Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 14:30
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    This sounds like one of those "academia varies more than you think situations." academia.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4471/… I thought everybody would know immediately what I am talking about when mentioning the letter to the editor and how the system works. I elaborated my question. Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 22:45

2 Answers 2

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As a reviewer, you are providing feedback to the editor. If you're unsure what is expected of you, ask the editor! They are the ones who know what they are looking for, and give you feedback on their expectations.

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  • Here I am asking potentially many editors who might want to contribute to build a library of detailed answers to every question about academia :) Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 23:12
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Giving that the paper was already evaluated as novel and suitable for the journal everithing should be in scope. So the task is reduced to check for the motivation and robustness of the comment.

Is there a misunderstanding of the paper content and conclusion? If not, does the comment fix major mistakes in the data acquisition, their correctness and/or discussion? Or is just the commenter having a fetish for minor points / seeking attention?

If there are not major issues and/or the arguments of the comment are somewhat incremental to the paper, then they would be better communicate in a standard article, giving the appropriate discussion and reference.

In short, the referee should assess if the comment

  • is crucial - and not only beneficial - for the understanding of the already published paper

or

  • prevents the dissemination of a major experimental mistake or a wrong model/interpretation of the data.

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